Stop Kvetching

The lead article in the JC is a shock horror story about a missionary group called Jews for Jesus, which apparently is in a “new push”. The “push”, as you might imagine, is a campaign to persuade Jews to become Christians. The article is illustrated with some rather droll pictures of bright young things in blue t-shirts, trying to save the souls of some rather confused-looking black hat-wearing men.

The article contains the follow gems:

The veteran anti-missionary campaigner, Rabbi Shmuel Arkush of Birmingham Lubavitch, expressed deep concern about the Jews for Jesus campaign. He said: “I am worried that a vulnerable person will get drawn in. If you shoot 100,000 bullets, one will hit. We are very concerned for every single Jew.

“[Jews for Jesus] is theologically unsound. I am not comfortable with theological ideas being peddled in such an open way. It’s a front for converting Jews to Christianity, and as far as Jews are concerned, it is highly unwelcome and unnecessary.”

Rabbi Arkush, director of Operation Judaism, a counselling service that works to combat missionary threats, added: “We have helped people who have been ensnared by Jews for Jesus and other types of organisations.”

Manchester’s Rabbi YY Rubenstein labelled the Jews for Jesus push as “insulting” and “antisemitic”. He said: “Their [Jews for Jesus] definition of what is a Jew is not ‘our’ definition, so their claims for success, by definition, are bogus.

“They must know it is profoundly offensive to Jews. The idea that Jews are ignorant of what they are selling is stupid and insulting. We have rejected, do reject and always will reject what they are saying. To target Jews, I see it as antisemitic.

There are so many remarkable statements in these quotes, I hardly know where to start.  Of course Jews for Jesus is a “front for converting Jews to Christianity”: it hardly hides the fact. The giveaway is its name. To compare missionary work to a volley of shots is hysterical. And why on earth shouldn’t missionaries operate openly?

Rabbi Rubenstein’s claim that to “target Jews” is “antisemitic” is an interesting one. Certainly, Jews play an important role in the other three major Abrahamic faiths: Christianity and Islam. Both are replacement theologies, making the case for  a new covenant between God and Man, and so are preoccupied with Jews: as the original paradigm of those who entered into a bargain with the divine, of those who – according to the official version – breached that agreement, and those who – as far as Christianity and Islam are concerned – ultimately refused to accept the final revelation enter into the brotherhood of the true faith. A similar case might be made for Marxism. Marx himself – the descendant of Rabbis – was also rather preoccupied with Jews. There is certainly something messianic of his promise of a godless paradise on earth.

Certainly, the holy texts of all of these belief systems aren’t wholly kind to their Jewish cousins. Christianity has Jews killing god. Islam has Mohammed killing Jews. And Marx was very, very rude about Jews. The anger of those believers who fixate on the perfidy of Jews is that of a spurned lover. It is the refusal of Jews to honour to the covenant with the divine (or in the view of some ethnically Jewish Marxists, to obey the imperative to behave justly) which infuriates them, and by extension, god.

And this is a theme which runs through the Old Testament. Jews are portrayed as stiff necked, disobedient, wilful. God, accordingly, punishes them harshy. The lesson is clear: honour your contract with god, or you’d get it.

So, are these belief systems anti-semitic? Well, there are certainly practictioners of all these faiths who have gone out of their way to acheive confessional harmony. However, at its root, there will always be conflict between a those belief systems which preach that others, and Jews in particular, have got it wrong.

That conflict has, at times, been bloody. Nevertheless, a little competition is a healthy thing for religion which wants to avoid insularity and stasis. Religious Jews should thank Jews for Jesus for keeping them on their toes. If they’re worried about losing the co-religionists, they should consider how better to encourage them to stay.

Ultimately, however, trying to put a person right need not be regarded as an act of racism.

At university, I shared a flat with a number of religious Christians (along with others of no particular faith). One of them was “born again”, and manifested his new faith by doing all the washing up every morning, while whistling hyms. Two of my friends, Michael and David, took to jumping on my bed on Sundays, in a misguided attempt to encourage me to attend Mass. It only had the effect of strenthening my firmly held belief that I wanted to stay snuggled up underneath the covers. Which I could do, as there was not washing up waiting for me.

I was no more likely to become a Christian when I shared rooms with Christians, than I was liable to become gay some years later, when I was the only straight boy living in a house of gay men and lesbians. If you aren’t the sort of person who fancies men, you are only likely to have sex with them when very drunk indeed. Likewise, if you don’t believe in god, it is relatively unlikely that you’ll have a Damascene moment.

There are those, certainly, who have a powerful need for redemption, or who crave the sense of wonder and majesty that a really good religious service can provide, or who simply like belonging to a club for good people, who like being told how to conduct themselves. And if Judaism is losing believers to other sects, then they’re the ones they ought to be identifying and targeting. Some, like the Lubavitch, do precisely that. They have the right idea.

I’m not sure what could be done to improve Judaism. One of its major problems is that its core books appear to embody, according to one thesis at least, the relics of a power struggle between those priests who took the view that they were the descendants of Aaron, and those who regarded themselves as followers in the footsteps of Moses. As a result, Aaron appears as both a hero and a villain, and Moses’ perfection is, in some episodes, incomplete: which results in a redacted Bible in which the protagonists are rather ambivalent figures. However, issues such as these don’t appear to be fatal to religions. Muslims have to fight hard against the blasphemous deification of the flawless Mohammed. Christians have made their founder a god, despite professing monotheism. The followers of all these religions are pretty relaxed about these intrinsic tensions, and even make an intellectual virtue of them.

If you had to point to one thing Judaism might do, other than breeding like Rabbis, to counter the fear that its numbers will diminish, it would be for it to proselytise. Christians have tried this tactic, and it has been rather successful. Jews used to be fairly relaxed about the whole thing. The Biblical accounts of conversion, stripped of the learned commentary, suggest that used to be a pretty simple affair. Nowadays, it appears to be rather more tricky.

Rabbi YY Rubenstein appreciates the issue, but misses the point. Consider this phrase:

Their [Jews for Jesus] definition of what is a Jew is not ‘our’ definition, so their claims for success, by definition, are bogus.

What he means, is that the organisation converts people whose Jewish descent is merely patrilineal, and so many of those they embrace as Messianic Jews, are not Jewish at all, as far as he’s concerned. So, why should he care? He has nothing to offer these people.

I’m utterly neutral about Jews for Jesus. As long as people’s religions don’t encourage them to breach basic human rights norms, or abandon democracy, or to bore on about things when you’re not really interested, what’s the problem?